In low- and middle-income countries, the vast majority of land remains contested, leaving around 2.5 billion people living in rural and forest areas highly vulnerable to poverty, violence and environmental degradation.
Conflicts over land rights are increasing, as corporations involved in large-scale agriculture, resource extraction and energy production increase their activities in these areas. This means more private sector projects are being opposed, and eventually stalled or canceled, leading to more violent outcomes. According to Global Witness, almost four environmental activists are now being murdered each week.
This trend will accelerate as corporations and investors rush to develop clean energy projects in low- and middle-income countries. Last year, a $150 million wind park project in Kenya was stopped over a land dispute between the project’s developer and local landowners.
In this increasingly volatile context, it seems unlikely that the private sector could find common ground with local communities — and the local and international nongovernmental organizations who support them. Yet a small group of stakeholders is convinced of the contrary. Together, they have formed the Interlaken Group, an informal network of individuals coming from corporations, investors, civil society organizations, governments and INGOs, with its goal to turn corporations into allies in the process of securing land rights.
Beyond ‘naming and shaming’
Interlaken is a small lakeside resort town nestled in the heart of the Swiss Alps. A picture-postcard getaway, it’s also the site of a conference center where the first International Conference on Scaling-Up Global Efforts to Secure Community Land and Resource Rights took place in 2013.
During the conference, Andy White, president of the Rights and Resources Initiative, invited Mark Constantine of the International Finance Corporation to co-chair a panel on the role of the private sector in upholding community land rights. By partnering with the IFC, an organization known for setting the benchmark for progressive companies and investors, White hoped to attract a range of participants from CSOs, as well as the private sector. The free, unofficial tone of the discussion turned out to be liberating for participants, otherwise wary of making statements on behalf of their organizations.
“That led to people saying, let’s keep this going, and meet in six months,” recalled Constantine in an interview with Devex.
Constantine and White went on to formally create and co-chair the Interlaken Group. Co-leadership by the IFC has encouraged development finance institutions to join, in turn attracting international companies that seek capital from those DFIs, while RRI’s role has been a catalyzer for the participation of leading CSOs, White explained.
The group is taking shape at what appears to be a turning point for local and indigenous land rights. As large-scale resource exploitation increases, so does the influence held by the private sector over how tenure rights are shaped and upheld. At the same time, more corporations are choosing to abide by international standards to respect community rights, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, known as VGGT, as a result of what White called the “naming and shaming” strategy adopted by NGOs in recent years.
But adoption of these standards doesn’t always lead to implementation.
“There’s a big gap between saying you’re going to do the right thing and then actually doing it, especially when doing it means influencing thousands of suppliers, thousands of miles away,” White explained.
The Interlaken Group aims precisely at helping leading companies — those that have demonstrated a willingness to change their practices and hold enormous influence over industries and governments — bridge this gap. “Our thinking was that if the Nestlés of the world could not meet these commitments, then who in the world could?”
By convening a diverse group of stakeholders, including members of local communities living on land where resource exploitation takes place, the group aims to catalyze change not only within companies, but across entire sectors and countries. In doing so, it hopes to make all members understand the value of opening a clear line of communications.
Joan Carling, secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, joined the group earlier this year.
“What came up for me in the Interlaken Group is that we really need to reach out to companies to engage the communities to understand their perspectives on land issues,” she said, adding that there is an opportunity for the group to guide companies toward the right sources of information and knowledge about local cultures and community land rights.
When developing new projects, Carling explained, these companies could be put in touch with local NGOs and community leaders to access information on the local context that may not be relayed by governments, and to improve their consultation process with the local population.
The informal nature of the group has allowed its members to build a sense of trust among each other and to speak frankly on issues that can be fraught with tension, Constantine explained.
“We, of course, have very spirited deliberations, and we don’t always fully agree, but people say, ‘OK, I had my day in court, I made my case, this is a reasonable compromise,’” he said.
In addition to these meetings, the group monitors corporate progress on commitments to the VGGT made by multinationals such as Cargill, Coca-Cola and Unilever, by listing online their adhesion to principles such as obtaining free, prior and informed consent from communities, and to respecting local land rights. It also produces technical documents specifically targeted at private sector organizations to help them align their operations with these guidelines.
The business case for secure land rights
Constantine and White’s reasoning for launching a new kind of dialogue between this range of stakeholders is based on the mounting evidence of the financial consequences of land-related conflict.
A 2012 report released by the Munden Project showed that conflicts over land rights in developing countries increase operating costs by 29 times because of project delays, work stoppages and even complete shutdowns of operations. And billions of dollars are currently at stake in projects held in territories where land rights haven’t been clarified.
Earlier this year, a new study led by RRI, the Munden Project and TMS Systems revealed that the majority of disputes in Africa between local communities and companies start even before operations begin, pointing to a profound misunderstanding on the part of companies of the drivers of conflict and the legal environment in which they operate.
White says the private sector is starting to take note.
“One of the most important transitions in recent years in the whole land arena is that these companies and investors have realized that it’s not just a CSR issue,” he explained. “It’s a business risk to them, their investments and their supply.”
This is opening the door to new kinds of partnerships between the private sector and NGOs. In Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, Africa’s largest sugar producer Illovo Sugar Limited is now running land rights programs together with local CSOs, and recently announced a new partnership with INGO Landesa, supported by the U.K. Department for International Development.
“You’re starting to see more NGOs specialize in providing that bridge between companies and communities,” said White.
Laying the groundwork for constructive engagement
The sense of urgency felt by companies and investors explains why they have been so quick to join the Interlaken Group.
“It’s been beyond our expectations,” said White discussing their participation. Already, a number of development finance institutions that are part of the group have adjusted their due diligence to look deeper into land rights, he said, and some have even rejected projects they may have considered in the past based on these new criteria.
Kate Mathias, a development consultant working with Illovo, joined the group earlier this year.
“Our benefit is really … to have a space where we can talk about some of the challenges we’re having, receive some advice and support on how we might deal with it, and learn from companies what they're doing,” Mathias said during an interview with Devex.
Among challenges Illovo is facing is how to build communication channels with communities, she explained.
“It's difficult to operate in an environment where you've had a breakdown in the relationship with the community,” she said, adding that having to navigate the various levels of government, as well as non-traditional governance systems, sometimes makes it hard for the company to know who should be their primary conversation partner.
This is where the Interlaken Group can help, Carling explained. By sitting down at the same table, civil society groups and private sector organizations can get a better sense of what each side needs — and how they can help address those needs — so as to move forward on their respective agendas.
“It’s through building that kind of understanding that there can be rules for more constructive engagement with communities, and even partnerships,” Carling said.
Photo by: Annie Spratt